Each winter, over 30 million visitors typically flock to Florida to soak up the sun and escape the snow. Arizona, another popular wintertime destination, usually welcomes almost 10 million tourists between January and March. But this season, warm-weather havens will likely see fewer people sunbathing on their beaches and resting at their resorts as the coronavirus continues to circulate throughout the United States.
Among those seasonal visitors weighing travel plans are so-called “snowbirds” — retirees who migrate to warmer climates during the winter months and who are at higher risk for serious health complications if they contract the virus.
"COVID is everywhere; there's no escaping COVID,” says Rebecca Acosta, a registered nurse, public health professional and executive director of Traveler's Medical Service. If it's cold weather you're hoping to escape, however, experts recommend answering these eight questions before you decide whether to stay put or head south this winter.
Older adults and people with underlying health conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, meaning they are more likely to require hospitalization, intensive care or help breathing if they get sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There is no specific age at which one joins this “high risk” category; rather, health officials warn that the risk simply increases as you get older. “For example, people in their 50s are at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 40s,” the CDC says. And “people in their 60s or 70s are, in general, at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 50s.”
Similarly, some chronic health conditions (including type 2 diabetes and heart disease) come with more known risks for COVID-19 complications than others. All this is to say: Before you commit to a trip, consider your own individual risks for COVID-19, and then decide whether you're comfortable traveling with those risks, knowing that the safer option might be to stay home.
"The main thing is really for people to think a little bit before they go. They have to consider COVID when they're making travel plans, whether it's for a weekend, a week or three months,” Acosta says. “That's the starting point.”
Once you assess your own risk, it's time to familiarize yourself with a few key coronavirus trends in your planned destination. This information should be available on the local health department's website.
First, look at case counts over the most recent two-week period, says Syra Madad, an infectious disease epidemiologist and senior director of the System-wide Special Pathogens Program Office at New York City Health + Hospitals. You want to see them trending downward, which would indicate less virus is circulating in the community. Next, check out the number of new daily cases per 100,000 people. “What we like to see is less than four daily new cases per 100,000 people,” Madad says.
Testing is another key area on which to focus. Look at the number of tests available in the community and the amount of testing that's being done. “If you're going to an area that has poor testing capability, then that is another indication that there may be much more virus spreading than being documented,” Madad says. Ideally, you want to see at least 150 new tests per 100,000 people in that particular community per day. “And then you want to make sure that the overall positivity rate in those tests is less than 5 percent,” she adds.
Finally, monitor hospital and intensive-care capacity in your destination to make sure the health systems are not overwhelmed, just in case you do contract the virus and get sick. This is especially important as flu season ramps up in the U.S., because “flu is competing against the same hospital resources as COVID-19,” Madad says. “It's the same beds, it's the same [personal protective equipment], it's the same staff. So if they get overwhelmed with flu, then obviously COVID is just another thing that they're [burdened] with.”